In 1847, as Charlotte Brontë’s first novel was bounced yet again to Haworth parsonage, her sisters Emily and Anne made a deal with a London publisher to bring out their novels, “Wuthering Heights” and “Agnes Grey.” Charlotte read her sisters’ books and took what she needed. Enough with restraint and the unspoken. She would give readers what they wanted— what she wanted: sex, ambition and Gothic shenanigans. The heroines of her sisters’ books were beautiful, however, and Charlotte bristled. They said they did not think the public would embrace a plain woman. In the spirit of a dare, Charlotte wrote “Jane Eyre,” in which a plain, orphaned governess wins the heart of a rogue addicted to beautiful women.
When “Jane Eyre” was published later, in 1847, it was an immediate rage. The intimate voice of the storyteller made people feel as though she was speaking directly to them. Charlotte, not Dickens, invented the child narrator who acutely registers pain. Before publication, Charlotte’s editors urged her to tone down the harshness of the opening chapters set at Lowood School and the agonizing death of Helen Burns (based on Charlotte’s older sister Elizabeth), but she refused.
Contemporary reviewers praised Emily’s morally enigmatic novel, but its genius was apparent to few in her time. Her nest of stories within stories, exploring the space between dream and wakefulness, feels postmodern and boasts two unreliable narrators. Sadistic and witty, it issues from a private vision. Charlotte looks out, speaking for everyone ever sold short. She speaks for the right of women, plain or beautiful, to claim love.
She has found an affectionate champion in British biographer Claire Harman, whose lively and exhaustively researched “Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart” arrives on the 200th anniversary of Charlotte’s birth.
Do we need another Brontë bio, given the dozen or so captivating meditations that have followed Elizabeth Gaskell’s brilliant and gossipy pioneer study, published in 1857 ? Of course we do. Harman’s story is about how writers write. Her subjects are not accidental geniuses, rather women with time. Yes, the sisters are socially isolated in Haworth. (They don’t care, as long as they have each other.) Yes, they are burdened by a pompous, needy father who places his faith in his fragile son. Yes, they endure their brother’s drug addiction and craziness — and use it in their books. Branwell set fire to his bed, and five minutes later, Bertha Mason did the same in the attic of Charlotte’s fictional Thornfield Hall.
After her marriage to a minister at 38, Charlotte did not write much and died nine months later from a complicated pregnancy, but until that time and except for harrowing stints as a teacher or a governess, she lived at home with her siblings, and they wrote all the time. No boyfriends, no husbands, no children. Their escape from traditional roles is at the core of their radicalism. It made them scary and thrilling in their time and continues to in ours.
Oddly, Harman skips over Lucasta Miller’s startling and convincing charge in “The Brontë Myth” (2001) that Charlotte was the one who, after her sisters’ deaths, destroyed their letters as well as Emily’s unpublished second novel. The evidence? Charlotte bowdlerized one of Emily’s poems and tried to spin Emily as a primitive in her introduction to the 1850 reissue of her sisters’ novels. Why? Wild, tough-minded Emily functioned as Charlotte’s id puppet — standing in for her own appetites for sex and rage — much the way in “Wuthering Heights” Heathcliff serves as Cathy’s id puppet and Rochester as Jane’s in “Jane Eyre.” Charlotte wanted to get Emily under control.
Harman’s Charlotte says yes to life more than no, advancing against all odds. In 1837, she seeks encouragement from Poet Laureate Robert Southey, who tells her women should not write. After the publication of “Jane Eyre,” she mentions to her father that she has written a novel, that it has earned praising reviews and that she is making money. Wearily, he says he may consider reading it.
Harman acknowledges her debt to the scholarship of Margaret Smith, who published and annotated more than 900 of Charlotte’s letters, and the figure that emerges most indelibly here is lovesick Charlotte. The bulk of Charlotte’s extant letters were written to Ellen Nussey, a school friend remarkable only for preserving her mail. Charlotte fell deeply and unrequitedly in love with two men: a married professor at a school she attended in Brussels and her publisher, George Smith, who famously believed she would have traded her literary gifts for beauty.
Charlotte would no doubt have asked, “Why do I have to choose?” She wanted “to be forever known” — and more. Her outcries of grief over the men break your heart and astound in their dog-with-a-bone tenacity. She understood the way emotion creates altered mind states. The realness of lived experience, pretty or not, is her great contribution to literature. Harriet Martineau tried to slut shame her before the publication of “Villette,” saying the book diminished women by representing them as abject slaves to one emotion. Charlotte responded: “I know what love is as I understand it — & if man or woman shd. feel ashamed of feeling such love — then there is nothing right, noble, faithful, truthful, unselfish on this earth.”
She was always staring out a window, imagining women somewhere else. Thanks in part to Charlotte, we live there now.
Laurie Stone is the author of three books of fiction and nonfiction. Her next book, “My Life as an Animal, Stories” will be published this fall.
By Claire Harman
Knopf. 462 pp. $30